Monday, 18 December 2006

Mince Pies and Rights Abuses

The New Zealand Herald published a story on 15 December reassuring its readers of the ordinariness of the Christmas menu on offer in our prisons this year. Aside from the small number of people who will be bitterly disappointed at the absence of gruel and stale bread on the lunch table at Rimutaka Prison, the majority of the community would not need the reassurance if they bore in mind at least two of the most recent failures of our penal system.

Most recently, Liam Ashley's death was contributed to by the Department failing to afford him protections demanded by his age and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. That Convention demands, amongst other things, that young people and adult offenders be segregated in penal institutions. In Liam's case that seems to have gone by the by in our mission statement bearing, out-sourced public prison service.

Not so long ago the government were declared to be in breach of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 by the High Court for their treatment of inmates subjected to "administrative segregation" (solitary confinement by another name). The breaches in Attorney-General & Ors v Taunoa & Ors were held to amount to inhumane treatment and ranged from the conditions in cells falling well short of proper standards of hygiene required for a person living in one place for 22-23 hours per day to the absence of any screening of prisoners who might be mentally unwell and particularly vulnerable to isolation.

Given what sometimes happens in our jails, we should not begrudge inmates a mince pie for Christmas lunch.

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